SMPA town hall: How media and politics changed the state of the nation

On Wednesday, Sep. 13, the GW College Democrats and College Republicans co-sponsored an SMPA Town Hall to discuss how media and politics have shaped the country recently and how we, as a nation, move forward. 

The panelists were Jeffrey Blount, who directed Meet the Press for over a decade; Hadas Gold, a GW alumna who has worked for Politico and CNN; Howard Opinsky, the former press secretary for Sen. John McCain; Mara Liasson, a longtime political correspondent for NPR; Cornell Belcher, an award-winning Democratic pollster and Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-PA.

Frank Sesno, the director of SMPA, started the panel off with statements from both the College Democrats and Republicans. GW College Democrats Executive Vice President Aly Belknap gave her insights first.

"We're definitely at a new point with the relationship of media and politics," Belknap said. "I would say many of our parents and grandparents remember a time when there was a unified idea of what the media was."

Allie Coukos, chair of College Republicans, spoke next, arguing that the mainstream media keeps up a "barrage" on President Trump, even if he does something alright. She said that while Trump dug himself into a bit of a hole with healthcare, the media still didn't give him a “fighting chance.” 

Coukos' comments brought up a point revisited throughout the night: what does fair coverage of Trump look like? Personally, I believe that if the media reported on everything as equally good and bad, that in itself would be editorializing; refusing to report on flaws in Trump's healthcare bill for the sake of not being too negative, for example, would have done a disservice to the public.

Hadas Gold said it is fair to criticize any media you consume, especially in the unique political circumstances we are in.

"As Allie of College Republicans was saying, sometimes it can come across as though [the media is not] giving the president a fighting chance," Gold said, "but on the other hand... unlike what the president sometimes likes to say, the media usually does not make up their information... somebody is telling them these things."

Mara Liasson echoed Gold's comments about the uniqueness of covering the Trump administration.

"He has at his disposal the latest tools and platforms," she said. "Twitter is one powerful tool for him."

Liasson, however, disagreed with Coukos' comments that Trump doesn't get a chance when it comes to his policies.

"He gets a chance," Liasson said. "He gets a big chance every day to talk unfiltered directly to his supporters. He cherishes it, he talks about it a lot, and he's out there either saying things to the media in a speech or on Twitter that are not based in fact, and we have to report on that. If it's not true or there's no evidence for it, we've got to say that."

On the issue of truth, Howard Opinsky said that he let Sen. McCain talk directly with the media because he would probably "make fewer mistakes than successes."

"The challenge we have," Opinsky said," is that the value of truth seems to have plummeted." 

Cornell Belcher agreed, saying that facts absolutely mattered in past elections in a way they did not in 2016.

"Reality television is eating our culture, and now it's come to eat our politics," he said. "Facts did not matter in this election. I don't think George Bush or Ronald Reagan could have gotten away with what we've seen happen in our politics."

Sesno asked Opinsky if McCain's team would have ever considered not releasing his tax returns, to which Opinsky responded that "it wouldn't have dawned on us." Opinksy added, however, that he believes the issue of candidates' taxes doesn't connect to most voters because other people's taxes don't address pressing issues facing average Americans.

 From left to right: Jeffery Blount, Hadas Gold, Howard Opinsky, Mara Liasson, and Cornell Belcher.

From left to right: Jeffery Blount, Hadas Gold, Howard Opinsky, Mara Liasson, and Cornell Belcher.

Earlier in the night, Sesno read off survey results from a recent Pew poll showing the sharp divide between Democrats and Republicans on issues of climate change and race relations, specifically Black Lives Matter. Belcher argued that those issues are magnified so greatly now because of demographic changes in the country.

"Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history," he said. "You will see a democracy switch from majority white to a majority minority. That's a really big deal, and we shouldn't pretend that that sort of dramatic change in our country... is not going to have backlash and we're not going to have bumps along the road."

In terms of polarized media, Jeffery Blount said that journalists worrying that their reporting could make them seem too partisan is a relatively new phenomenon. 

"There was a time when reporters would say, ‘if you were criticizing me, then that was a good thing. It meant I was doing my job,’" Blount said. "You go forward with that and not worry that it's pushing you in one direction or another."

Much of the discussion centered on polarization in the media, both on how it is split around Trump and how Trump increases those divides. Liasson said that all presidents hate their news coverage, but that Trump has taken the conflict to a new level.

"He decided that a war with the news media, or at least the media that he calls fake news," she said, "is a good decision," adding that she is surprised we haven't seen worse violence than one (winning) congressional candidate body slamming a reporter.

Gold agreed, saying that she finds it especially dangerous for Trump to relate to foreign leaders by saying “we have journalism problems, too,” during press conferences in countries like Saudi Arabia, where journalists are tortured or murdered for their content. 

Sesno called on Professor Robert Entman, who specializes in race relations and political communication, to talk about his views on the relationship between media and politics today. Entman said he would actually defend the media a little bit and point the "finger of blame" at the country's leadership.

"[The 2008 Republican platform] acknowledged carbon emissions as a problem, the need for carbon emissions to be cut using efficient market mechanisms," he said. "In 2008, McCain and Obama's positions on climate change weren't all that different. Now, you've got two entirely separate spheres... We are in uncharted territory. It's uncharted for the media, it's uncharted for the citizen, and it's also uncharted for political scientists."

Entman said that he believes that, across all branches and parties, American leadership is "engaged in a rush to the bottom," but admitted he believes the GOP started that race.

Overall, the panelists agreed that the issues we care about in D.C. or at GW are very different from what people care about nationally, the "bread-and-butter" issues. Opinsky said that we talk in the District about esoteric issues, which he said certainly matter, but they aren't top priorities for the average American. 

Rep. Boyle agreed, saying that weeks after McCain's healthcare vote, almost all questions at his town hall were still about healthcare, but he also acknowledged that the issues his constituents care about vary by location.

"I represent a very diverse district socioeconomically," he said. "I have some of the wealthiest, white-collar zip codes in the state... and also some of those blue-collar neighborhoods that have a lot of Reagan Democrats... We get climate change questions a lot more in Montgomery County than we tend to get in northeast Philadelphia."

For me, the one disheartening part of the night was when a student asked a question about the "fake New York Times" and said that the idea of any improper relations with Russia during the election is a "fake story."

Fortunately, Liasson pushed back on that, saying that “we don't know that yet." She also added that, contrary to the student's point, the Russia story didn't "go away" because it “isn't there,” but rather that it is a "grinding process" and won't always have new developments. 

This was frustrating because while I knew the panel wasn't going to solve all the nation's problems, I wanted to see hope for the nation moving forward (or back, rather) to a less-divided media and a nation that generally agrees on facts. However, there is no media diet that could satisfy both the previous student and myself. 

Fortunately, this wasn't the case with all the Republicans there. Coukos said her go-to media source is The Wall Street Journal, and while I find most of their opinion pieces to be too conservative, I can read its news stories without doubting the validity of its information. I agreed with another member of College Republicans on his point about the media's priorities: almost all coverage went to the Comey hearing, with little going to the Dodd-Frank repeal happening the same day.

I don't know that any minds were changed at this town hall, but I believe the conversations that were had came at a vital time in American politics, and they are ones that we need to continue having.

This piece was also published through the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.